Academic post

I know most people who read my blog connect most to the pregnancy posts, but every once in a while I just need to write an unabashedly academic post — so feel free to skip, or just enjoy this insight into the wilds of life as a physical science professor.

This week, my first postdoc is leaving my university.  It is so very bittersweet.  He has been in my group for five years — I hired him on a two-year grant, and then when another 3-year NSF grant came through, I kept him on.  He had to switch fields to join my group, so had a steep learning curve, and at the time wasn’t really competitive for another job and wanted to stay, and since he was doing good work, I let him.  Let me say, for the record, I am SO glad I did.

The ways in which he has contributed to my research group and my department are countless.  There’s been the simple fact of having someone in my group thinking full-time about research and working on the tools and infrastructure that we’ve needed to push the whole group’s research forward into this decade.  He’s wonderful with the students, more approachable and less intimidating than I am, and yet still pushing them towards independence rather than coddling them.  And as a member of our department, he has been the sort of team player who is comfortable both leading and following — he has led some of our department’s most important equity and inclusion initiatives, including starting a journal club to discuss recent papers on STEM equity.  He has been an enthusiastic and reliable contributor to our department’s outreach program, including saving our bacon by filling in last-minute on more than one occasion.  He taught a class to gain experience and did a wonderful job.  He’s hosted an annual tamale-making party for the students (no faculty allowed).  When something needs to be done around the department, even if it’s not glamorous, he steps up — all while getting his work done and having a life outside of work.  He is exactly the sort of person I would hope for as a long-term colleague, and I am going to miss him so, so much.

His departure is bittersweet — as sad as I am that he is leaving, I am delighted for him because he got exactly the kind of job he wanted, and exactly the kind of job I think he’s going to kick butt at.  He will manage a facility and be a lab instructor at a tippy-top-ranked liberal arts college, which is just the sort of job he wanted.  He’ll be only 2.5 hours away from us by car, and I’ll see him at least ~twice a year since our department is part of a consortium with this department and a handful of others, so I won’t truly be losing him as a colleague.  It’s the best possible way his time with me could have ended.

His departure brings up so many thoughts and questions for me.  I know I might not get as lucky with every postdoc I ever hire, but having him has been so delightful and so symbiotically wonderful for his career and mine that it makes me want to do it again.  It also makes me think a bit wistfully about my choice to join a department with no PhD program.  I suspect that my experience with this postdoc is akin to the experience of a typical R1 faculty member with their best PhD students.  And it has been beautiful, and I suspect will form the basis of a very productive long-term collaboration between us (at any rate, he’ll be on all my group’s papers for the foreseeable future thanks to his work on our software capabilities).  I also have to recognize that he has made a significant contribution to my competitiveness for tenure.  I mean, I know some of that is thanks to my hard work — I wrote the grants that paid for him to be here, I wrote the proposals that got the initial data for his projects, I trained him to enter my field and I supervised and mentored his research and other work all the way along.  But man, has he paid me back, in spades.  He has been such a productive collaborator, generating papers, coming up with his own ideas, taking my group’s research in new directions, and bringing our code base back into cutting-edge territory, which I haven’t had time to work on with all the teaching and supervising I do. I mention a cool idea I thought of or heard about at a conference, and he makes it happen and improves it in ways I never would have thought of — and he also finds new tools and tries them out, which enriches all the research my group does.  It’s awesome.

I’m grateful to be in a department that welcomes and supports postdocs — not all liberal arts colleges have this culture.  But it does make me question, to some extent, whether the choice to take the liberal arts college route was really the right one for me.  On balance, I think so.  I am very, very happy with my balance of responsibilities here (especially teaching vs. research), and while I’d love to have more postdocs like this one, part of what has made having him here so special is that he is the only one I’ve had — I haven’t had to juggle mentoring five grad students and a postdoc, which means I’ve naturally been more involved with him, which I think has worked out well for both of us.

We just had our last research meeting EVER.  It was so sad, and so sweet.  We’d each gotten each other little gifts.  He got me a book about recent research on women in science and a cooperative board game for ages 2+ that I can play with my son and husband (um, he might have gotten to know me a little bit while he’s been here!).  I had commissioned a former art major / gen-ed student of mine to make an artsy sketch of the beautiful historic building that we work in, which I then framed — our building is a really special place to work (it’s featured on all of the publicity photos of our college, for example, but it’s also a functional part of the type of work that we do), and I figured that it might be nice for him to have a tangible reminder of the happy (I think) times he spent here, even as he moves on to new places and new adventures.  I didn’t want to give him something too personal, but did want to give him something that I thought might be meaningful to remind him of his time here — and help him decorate his new office.

So, with nothing but fondness and gratitude, I’m bidding him farewell this week.  His last day is Friday, and I’m taking the whole group out to lunch and then organizing an informal gathering for the whole department in the afternoon to send him off.  We will miss him, and I will always be very grateful for his many contributions and for the chance to know him and have him as a colleague.

10 thoughts on “Academic post

  1. Erin @Splitmom

    This was such a great post! It highlights the importance of making connections and trusting your gut and going out on a limb for someone, and how we build each other up up and up by doing so! Exactly what I needed to read tonight.

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Aw, thanks, Erin! Trusting your gut and going out on a limb for someone indeed — after his first year, when I had to make the decision about offering him the second grant or not, it was very not-obvious that he would succeed in my field, since he was still getting his sea legs and really hadn’t done anything yet. But it was very obvious that he wouldn’t get anywhere if I threw him out on the job market at that point, and I thought he had potential, so I let him stay. Man oh man, was that the best decision I’ve made in a long time. I think we rarely go wrong when we invest in someone who works hard and is a team player. I have a lot of conversations with one of my colleagues about making decisions that prioritize the lives and careers of our junior colleagues, even at the expense of our own agenda and best interests. I’ve pretty much never felt regret when I’ve done that, and it almost always works out better than I expect. I’m glad to be in a place where nobody judged me for that decision, and that attitude is explicitly endorsed by at least some of my colleagues.

  2. jwhitworth7

    Sounds like this guy was pretty fabulous! I remember this type of thing happening when I was teaching (on a smaller scale) and it is very bitter sweet. I’m so glad you had several positive years with him and I wish him the best!

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Thanks, Jennifer! You’re right, it is so bittersweet. He has been great, and I’m glad that we’ll get to continue to be colleagues, just at different institutions.

  3. Dani

    I am so lucky to have mostly worked with people like this in my career. Seriously lucky. He does sound awesome, a natural. I don’t think they are too rare, it must cool to know that you are part of helping him towards his new ideal job, I can understand the bittersweetness you feel 🙂

    1. lyra211 Post author

      That is super lucky indeed! He’s my first postdoc, so I have no idea how typical this experience will be. I was worried when I hired him, because basically it’s a low-prestige position to come to a liberal arts college on a grant-funded position, but I think that the job market in my field is just so saturated with amazing people that it’s hard to go too wrong (only about 1/4 PhDs gets a faculty job in my field, and most of the rest leave the field entirely). Here’s to more luck down the line!

  4. xykademiqz

    This is so sweet! My first posdoc was with me for 4 years and he was such a wonderful addition to the group. He is doing great in his faculty position and is going up for tenure next year! Time flies. I am so proud of him and we remain colleagues and academic commiserators (!), and I am remain his champion to the best of my ability.

    I think because our work is such a huge part of who we are, the relationships with academic offspring are very special. It is something between a close colleague and your own child. Probably similar to how artists or craft masters of yore felt about their apprentices.

    Overall, congrats and best of luck to both you and your former postdoc!

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Thanks, xyk! This is what I’m hoping for in a longer-term relationship with my postdoc (I guess officially former now — yesterday was his last day!). I am so glad that he found a position in the consortium, which will give us an excuse to catch up in person a couple times a year. Glad to hear that you have continued to have such a positive relationship with your first postdoc.

  5. RJ

    Wishing him all the best! I enjoy your academic posts as well (I actually have a B.S. in chemistry but didn’t have any interest in more education there so I went to nursing school). It’s always wonderful to work with people who are team players and smart! Sounds like he will be greatly missed and I hope you can mentor another person soon!


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